When one thinks of great jazz music, Oklahoma does not typically come to mind. With keyboardist Brian Haas — a native and resident of the Sooner state — at its nucleus, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey have been ambassadors of creative music from the country's heartland for 15 years now. (Hardcore jazz aficionados know some other important jazz figures born or from Oklahoma, including Sam Rivers, Charlie Christian, Don Byas, Jimmy Rushing and Barney Kessel.)
For nine years, JFJO played mostly as a trio, creating a very recognizable sound. If variety is the spice of life, the group cooked up gustatory fireworks, shifting comfortably and with technical brilliance between acoustic and electric instruments, original compositions and refreshing versions of jazz standards. Their music has appealed both to jam band followers who know very little about jazz and to jazz fans who know very little about jam bands. As evidence, their music has been reviewed in JamBase, Jazz Times and Downbeat and Signal to Noise.
Now, Haas has assembled a new manifestation of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and the band has released a new CD, "One Day in Brooklyn." Collaborating with Haas are Chris Combs on lap steel guitar, Matt Hayes on double bass and Josh Raymer on drums.
Their performance Thursday afternoon for the Tidings Café was stripped down, Haas playing on a melodeon, but topnotch nevertheless.
Their first tune was a Thelonious Monk tune, "Four in One." (Haas is a wonderful interpreter of Monk, having included his tunes on a number of his albums.) The way great jazz standards survive is the way language survives: recognizable vocabulary mixed with neologism. It was a nice introduction to JFJO (version 3.0), jazzy seasoned with a nice pinch of twang. The beshaded creator of the tune, the musical explorer who lived in the TheloniousSphere, would have smiled in approval.
Their second tune was an original, "Drethoven," a tune swirling with four timbres equally, a smiling tune, a wonderful appetizer for the full show at the Stillwater later that night.
JFJO is on tour promoting their new album, which features tunes by Rahsaan Roland Kirk ("A Laugh for Rory/Black & Crazy Blues") and The Beatles ("Julia") and a standard by Thelonious Monk ("Four in One") as well as original compositions. You can hear a tune from their new release (as well as several tracks from previous JFJO CDs) at their very excellent Web site, jfjo.com.
The band has played in Ashland on several occasions, dating back to the '90s. This was the first appearance as a quartet with Brian, Chris, Matt and Josh. Haas describes the West Coast as "super welcoming" and likes that the audiences here seem to have a longer attention span allowing for longer sets.
When asked about the new band, Haas indicated that the band carries on JFJO's tradition of diversity. "We are just as comfortable at a jazz club like Yoshi's or The Blue Note or at a hippie festival."
Adding to the diversity of sound, each member of the band contributes compositionally. The three new members "grew up listening to JFJO and are totally immersed in the language, reteaching the language back to me," Haas said. He describes sound as a "dialect all our own" in the jazz idiom and describes the bands growth as being "like a tree — slow, not rushed."
Haas cites Bob Wells, J.J. Cale and Leon Russell along with jazz and classical influences. He explains that the addition of the lap steel and the upright bass contribute to an aesthetic informed by urban country, "red dirt" and Western swing. (In fact many contemporary jazz artists are fusing elements of this sound, including Wynton Marsalis, who recently recorded with Willie Nelson; Charlie Haden, whose Rambling Boy draws on folk influences; and Bill Frisell, who came out of Nashville and has been twangifying jazz for decades.) Haas summed up his new band's sound quite poetically: "We sound like an Oklahoma sunset looks."
Travis Cheney is a freelance writer living in Ashland. His radio program, the Supersonic Jazz Show, is broadcast at radioksoc.net.